Freiburg Baroque Orchestra – sounds from the Old World

HAYDN – Symphony No.91 in E-flat Hob.1:91

MOZART – Concerto for Horn and Orchestra in E-flat K.495

MOZART – Symphony No.38 in D Major “Prague” K.504

Teunis van der Zwart (natural horn)

Freiburg Baroque Orchestra

Rene Jacobs, conductor

New Zealand International Festival of the Arts Concert

Wellington Town Hall

Wednesday 17th March, 7.30pm

Without a doubt, a Festival highlight – two concerts on consecutive evenings in the Town Hall by the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra with conductor Rene Jacobs gave local aficionados the chance to hear a crack European “authentic instrument” ensemble perform. Recent recordings, mostly on the Harmonia Mundi label, have already established something of the group’s and the conductor’s name and reputation in this country, and the concert programmes mirrored some of that repertoire, such as the Haydn and Mozart symphonies featured. And how interesting, for people both familiar with and as yet unaware of those recordings, to hear these live performances in a local context, in venues where we’re accustomed to hearing our own orchestras play.

My brief was the first of the two concerts; and although each was similar in format – Haydn Symphony/Mozart Concerto/Mozart Symphony – there would have been ample interest and variety for those fortunate enough to attend both.  Each Haydn symphony (No.92 in the second concert) would demonstrate the composer’s incredibly fertile invention and contrapuntal skills, the different Mozart concertos (the “Turkish” Violin Concerto featured on the second night) would bring out the specific instrumental character in each case; and having the “Jupiter” Symphony (Thursday) follow the “Prague” on the previous evening would, I think be a Mozart-lover’s heaven.

As much as I applaud in theory the work of “authenticists” who try to perform baroque, classical and early romantic music as the composers themselves would have heard it, I confess to finding the results in many cases disappointing, my pet dislike being pinched, vibrato-less string-playing in particular, a horror invariably compounded by impossibly rushed tempi and brusque phrasing – all of which is frequently served up in the name of “authenticity”. In the pioneering days of authentic baroque and classical performance many musicians seemed to be seized with a “born again” fervour in their rigid application of the “no vibrato” rule for either string players or singers. Fortunately, there’s been a degree of modification on the part of some of these performers in their playing style, allowing for some warmth and flexibility in a way that, to my ears, the music often cries out for. So, what kind of “authenticated” impression did the musicians from Freiburg make during their concert?

Tempi were generally swift, apart from the rather more relaxed interpretation of the Mozart Horn Concerto, whose trajectories gave both soloist and players plenty of time to “point” their phrases and make the most of the music. Mozart’s “Prague” Symphony went several notches more swiftly in its outer movements than I’ve ever heard it taken previously, to exhilarating effect, as the players still seemed to have ample time to phrase and point their accents. Perhaps having had a solo career as a singer, conductor Rene Jacobs was able to impart a flexible, “breathing” quality to the orchestra’s playing, in a way so as to make nothing seem unduly rushed – though I generally prefer slower tempi for this music, I found the performance of the “Prague ” Symphony on this occasion quite exhilarating. I’d never before heard the connections between this work and “Don Giovanni” so underlined, with great timpani irruptions and minor key explosions in the slow introduction to the work. Then, again like in Don Giovanni, the mood switches from tragedy to an “opera buffa” feeling with the allegro, energy spiced with great trumpet-and-timpani interjections.

Rene Jacobs got a “flowing river” kind of feeling from the slow movement’s opening, with winds full-throatedly singing out their contributions. I loved the D-major “drone’ sound mid-movement, lovely and rustic, bringing forth some lovely ambient timbres from the winds, and contrasting markedly with the darker, more dramatic utterances of the development and recapitualtion. The finale’s near-breakneck speed worked, thanks to the skills of the players, miraculously able to articulate their phrases at Jacobs’ urgent tempo, strings and winds even managing a giggle with the trill just before the fanfares at the end of the exposition. It was fun to listen to, while perhaps at once regretting that so much wonderful music was literally speeding by – thank heavens for the repeats, both of the exposition and the development, which means we got to enjoy those marvellously angular syncopations of the melody twice over!

Still, I enjoyed the Haydn Symphony that began the programme even more – there’s something abut the tensile strength and muscularity of this music that responds to vigorous treatment, more so, I think, than does Mozart’s. I thought the players produced a lovely colour throughout the introduction, which was followed by a fleet and flexible allegro, with unanimity from the strings and solo work from the winds that reminded me of Charles Burney’s oft-quoted remark concerning the Mannheim Orchestra of the time – “an army of generals” – even a mishap concerning a broken string of one of the violins disturbed the music not a whit!  A briskly-walking Andante featured beautiful phrasing from a solo basson at one point, and some exciting dynamic contrasts, the lively tempo enlivening the textures and giving the music a strong sense of shape. Even more sprightly was the Minuet, with whirling passagework for strings, and lovely “fairground” trio section, horns chuckling off the beat, and winds counterpointing the strings’ tune the second time round, and with a “nudge-wink” dash to the end. Again, in the finale, the players exhibited the capacity to nicely sound and phrase the music at rapid speeds, the rapid, hushed figurations creating real excitement and expectation, the infectious joy breaking out accompanied by whoops of joy from the horns and rollicking oom-pahs from the lower strings.

Just as life-enhancing was the well-known Mozart Horn Concerto K.495, the one whose finale was adapted by Michael Flanders and Donald Swann to perform in their “At the Drop of Another Hat” concerts. However, this performance had its own set of distinctions, largely through being played by a soloist using a valveless horn, of the kind that Mozart would have written the music for. I had never heard such an instrument played “live” before, and marvelled both at the sklll of the player, Teunis van der Zwat, and at the remarkably distinctive tones produced by his instrument – many of the notes sounded “stopped” or “pinched”, giving the sounds a kind of “other-worldly” ambience in places, quite pale but very characterful – a wonderful cadenza, with great low notes and lovely trills, and a final flourish that brought in the orchestra on a low chord before the cadence.

In the slow movement in particular, the scale passages brought out notes of different individual timbres so that the music had a kind of “layered” effect, almost antiphonal in places. I wondered to what extent the soloist deliberately engineered this effect with his hand-stopping, or whether the variegated timbres happened anyway when he played. His tones were quite withdrawn for a lot of the time, even in the finale, though he brought out an exciting rasping effect on the repeated triple-note patterns, and some nice out-of-door flourishes at the work’s end which pleased the punters immensely.

I should add that Rene Jacobs and the orchestra gave us a lovely bonus item, in fact the finale of the Haydn symphony programmed in the second concert, the “Oxford”. Its delicately-scampering opening measures and full-throttled tutti passages made the perfect “sweetmeat” encore – and, of course, was the perfect “taster” for those intending to go the following evening. Joyous, exhilarating playing, bringing out the music’s wit alongside its colour and brilliance – marvellous sounds, indeed, from the Old World.

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